Born October 31, 1954
U.S. Army flight surgeon who was held prisoner in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War
"I remember very distinctly thinking as I was crashing, 'I have had a great life,' because I thought it was ending then."
Rhonda Cornum in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Rhonda Cornum served as a doctor in the U.S. Army during the Persian Gulf War. On the final day of the conflict, she took part in a helicopter search-and-rescue mission to locate an American pilot who had been shot down behind enemy lines. The helicopter she was flying in was shot down as well. Cornum survived the crash but suffered severe injuries. She was captured by Iraqi soldiers and held for eight days as a prisoner of war (POW). Upon her safe return to the United States, she wrote a book about her experiences and became an unofficial spokesperson for expanding combat roles for women in the military.
Becomes a doctor in the U.S. Army
Rhonda Leah (Scott) Cornum was born October 31, 1954, in Dayton, Ohio. Her father, Donald Scott, was an engineer who designed toys, and her mother, Jeanne Scott, was a clerk and homemaker. Rhonda was the oldest of their four children. Her family moved to a small town near Buffalo, New York, when she was a young girl. "Growing up, I was what most people would call a tomboy," she recalled in her autobiography, She Went to War. "I built dams in the creek and floated on rafts and collected frogs, toads, and snakes."
Cornum was a strong-willed and independent girl who occasionally showed a rebellious streak. But she was also a good student who always planned to go to college. Science was her favorite subject, and for many years she hoped to become a veterinarian. Cornum earned a bachelor's degree from Cornell University in 1975. She married her first husband, Marvin Fawley, during her senior year of college. She then went on to earn a doctorate degree in nutrition and biochemistry from Cornell in 1978. Her daughter, Regan, was born while she was in graduate school.
During her college years, Cornum and her family lived a simple life in upstate New York. "I lived in a log cabin and had my kid at home and raised chickens and goats," she noted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I wasn't a druggie, but I wasn't exactly establishment." Joining the military never crossed her mind. But then one day she presented the results of a research project at a scientific conference. After her lecture, she was approached by a man in uniform who offered her a job doing medical research for the U.S. Army.
Cornum accepted the job, joined the military, and received the rank of first lieutenant. By the time she completed the officer basic training course, she realized that she enjoyed army life. "In three months, I became an Army person—push-ups and sit-ups and running and all that," she stated in U.S. News and World Report. "And I was pretty good at it." Her husband did not share her enthusiasm for the military, however, and they divorced in 1980 as her career advanced.
From 1978 to 1982, Cornum worked as a medical research scientist at the Letterman Army Institute for Research in San Francisco, California. In 1983 she attended a flight surgeon training course. "Flight surgeons are medical doctors who have extra training and experience in aviation, altitude physiology, field sanitation, and combat medicine," she explained in her autobiography. As part of this course, Cornum learned to fly helicopters and to parachute out of airplanes. She also met her second husband, Kory Gene Cornum, who was a doctor in the U.S. Air Force.
Cornum earned her medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of Health Science in 1986. She then spent a year as a medical intern at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In 1987 she took a job as a physician at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Her husband became a flight surgeon at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle around the same time. They bought a farm in northwestern Florida, about halfway between the two military bases, where they raised Thoroughbred horses.
Serves as a flight surgeon in the Persian Gulf War
In August 1990 the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq invaded its smaller neighbor, Kuwait. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. He also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Hussein immediately withdraw his troops from Kuwait. Many of these countries then began sending military forces to the Persian Gulf region as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. The United States sent more than four hundred thousand troops to the Persian Gulf over the next six months. This massive military buildup received the code name Operation Desert Shield.
By mid-August Cornum learned that her army unit would be sent to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. She welcomed the challenge of using her skills in a real military operation. "Nobody's looking for war," she said in U.S. News and World Report. "But if [it happens], then you would like to put into practice all the stuff you've learned." Cornum, who had earned the rank of major by this time, served as the flight surgeon for the U.S. Army's 2/229 Attack Helicopter Battalion, which was attached to the 101st Air Assault Division. She was stationed near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where she was responsible for the medical care of more than three hundred soldiers. Her husband's air force unit was sent to a different area of Saudi Arabia.
In November 1990, the United Nations Security Council established a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war. When Hussein failed to meet the deadline, the U.S.-led coalition launched a series of air strikes against military targets in Iraq. This military action received the code name Operation Desert Storm. The air war went on for nearly six weeks and caused major damage to Iraq's military capability. On February 24 the coalition launched a dramatic ground assault to force the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. It met with little resistance from Hussein's army and succeeded in liberating Kuwait after only four days of fighting.
On the last day of the coalition ground assault, U.S. Air Force Captain William Andrews was shot down in his F-16 fighter plane behind enemy lines. Andrews was able to parachute safely to the ground and provide U.S. military officials with his location. Cornum learned about the situation while she was sitting in a Blackhawk helicopter waiting to fly off on a different mission. The army decided to send Cornum's helicopter on an emergency combat search-and-rescue mission to pick up the downed pilot before he was captured by Iraqi forces. Cornum's job as flight surgeon on this mission was to provide medical care to the injured pilot.
Cornum was part of an eight-person crew on the helicopter. Accompanied by two Apache attack helicopters, the Blackhawk flew low over coalition troops for half an hour. As they approached the F-16 crash site, they began taking fire from Iraqi antiaircraft guns on the ground. The Blackhawk suffered severe damage to its tail and crashed into the desert at 140 miles per hour. "I remember very distinctly thinking as I was crashing, 'I have had a great life,' because I thought it was ending then," Cornum told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I really got to do more stuff than most people do, so I should not complain."
Captured and taken prisoner by the Iraqis
Five of the eight crew members on board the Blackhawk died in the impact. Their bodies were later recovered by army investigators. Cornum and two enlisted men, Sergeant Troy Dunlap and Staff Sergeant Daniel Stamaris, miraculously survived the crash. Cornum suffered two broken arms, torn ligaments in one knee, a gunshot wound to the shoulder, and multiple cuts and bruises. Stamaris also suffered severe injuries, but Dunlap only had minor wounds. The three Americans were captured by Iraqi soldiers within minutes of the crash, before a rescue could be attempted. As a result, the U.S. Army did not know what happened to them and informed their families that they were missing in action. Andrews, the pilot they were looking for, was captured as well.
For the next eight days, Cornum was held by the Iraqis as a prisoner of war. She became one of twenty-three American POWs to be held during the Persian Gulf War, and one of only two women prisoners. During their first few days of captivity, Cornum and Dunlap were transported across the desert from bunker to bunker in the back of a truck. They were repeatedly questioned by the Iraqis and refused to reveal any classified military information. Cornum was sexually molested by an Iraqi guard during this time. She later said that the abuse she suffered was not nearly as bad as her constant fear of death. "It didn't make a big impression on me," she told Time. "You're supposed to look at this as a fate worse than death. Having faced both, I can tell you it's not. Getting molested was not the biggest deal of my life."
Cornum was eventually taken to an Iraqi hospital, where the bullet was removed from her shoulder and her broken arms were set. She tried to think positively and kept her spirits up by singing songs whenever she was alone in her Baghdad hospital room. Some of her fellow POWs later reported that they had heard her singing and that it cheered them up as well.
Cornum was released by the Iraqis along with all the other coalition prisoners on March 6, 1991. She flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on a plane sent by the International Red Cross relief organization. When they landed, she struggled to walk down the steep metal stairs with her injured knee and both arms in casts. "Step by cautious step, I made it to the ground, and the first person to greet me was General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (see entry) [the commander of coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm]," she recalled in her book. "I had never met him before, but instinctively, I tried to snap off a salute. My arm was stopped short by the plaster cast. 'I'm sorry, sir,' I said with a big smile. 'I normally salute four-star generals.'" A short time later, Cornum had a joyous reunion with her husband on board a U.S. Navy hospital ship in the Persian Gulf.
Becomes a spokesperson for women in the military
Cornum returned home in the spring of 1991 to parades and celebrations. She was interviewed for newspapers and magazines, and she spoke about her ordeal as a POW in a number of public appearances. Cornum's yellow POW uniform and the slings that held her broken arms became part of an exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In 1992 she published a book about her experiences, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story. The book received positive reviews and was declared one of the most notable books of the year by the New York Times.
All the attention surrounding her POW experience made Cornum one of the best-known women in the U.S. military. Without intending to do so, she became an unofficial representative of female members of the armed services. During the Persian Gulf War, women were prohibited from serving in a number of positions that might expose them to combat. One reason for this policy, according to U.S. government officials, was to reduce the risk of capture, rape, and torture of women soldiers by enemy forces. Cornum supported giving women the opportunity to serve in combat roles, and she rejected this common argument against it. "Every 15 seconds in America, some woman is assaulted," she pointed out in Time. "Why are they worried about a woman getting assaulted once every ten years in a war overseas? It's ridiculous. It's clearly an emotional argument they use [to keep women out of combat] because they can't think of a rational one."
In 1992 Cornum testified before a presidential commission in support of allowing women to serve in combat positions. The air combat roles for women in the U.S. military were expanded a short time later. Some people felt that Cornum's courageous conduct as a POW in Iraq helped change the views of U.S. leaders. "This was a validation that if women are in combat and something like this happens, they do have the strength, the stamina, the mental courage to meet the demands," said retired air force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught in U.S. News and World Report.
Cornum earned a number of awards for her military service, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Prisoner of War Medal. After recovering from the injuries she received during the Persian Gulf War, she attended command and staff college in Alabama and was promoted to the rank of colonel. She was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where she became commander of a Combat Support Hospital for the 18th Airborne Corps. In 2001 Cornum was sent to Bosnia for six months as part of a U.S. peacekeeping mission. Upon her return to the United States, she attended the War College in Washington, D.C. Many people speculated that she was being groomed to become a general, which would make her one of only eleven women to hold that rank in the U.S. Army.
Despite occasional frustration, Cornum loves the opportunities and challenges presented by her military career. "Where else could a 46-year-old woman who is also a physician and a surgeon get paid to jump out of an airplane?" she said in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I feel exactly like I felt 10 years ago, when I thought I was going to die in the middle of the desert. Every day is a gift. I feel really lucky."
Where to Learn More
Chase, Randall. Seattle Post Intelligencer, Jan. 16, 2001. Available online at http://www.pownetwork.org/gulf/cd070.htm (last accessed on March 26, 2004).
Cornum, Rhonda, with Peter Copeland. She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992.
Gleick, Elizabeth. "Combat Ready." People Weekly, August 10, 1992.
Perry, Joellen. "Rhonda Cornum: The Iraqi Army Couldn't Quash Her Fighting Spirit." U.S. News and World Report, August 20, 2001. Available online at http://www.usnews.com/usnews/doubleissue/heroes/cornum.htm (accessed March 26, 2004).
Ramirez, Adam. "Task Force Med Eagle Commander Has Made Her Mark since Days as POW in Iraq." Stars and Stripes, April 8, 2001. Available online at http://ww2.pstripes.osd.mil/01/apr01/ed040801k.html (accessed on March 26, 2004).
"Rhonda (Leah Scott) Cornum." Contemporary Authors Online, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.
"A Woman's Burden." Time, March 28, 2003. Available online at http://www.time.com/time/nation/printout/0,8816,438760,00.html (accessed on March 26, 2004).